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September 2006
Getting Birds Out from Behind Bars: The Campaign to Ban Battery Cages
By Paul Shapiro

 

Gene Gregory [senior vice president of the United Egg Producers]…commented on the activities of the Humane Society of the U.S. This group is the most feared of the activists and is trying to bring all groups together to create additional power…This organization will be the largest and biggest problem facing the industry.Egg Industry Magazine (July, 2005)

Arguably the most abused of all factory farmed animals today, egg-laying hens endure misery so extreme in scale and intensity that it is impossible for us to fully empathize with their plight. In the U.S., intensively confined in battery cages so restrictive they can’t spread their wings for months, hundreds of millions of these social, intelligent animals endure constant suffering and frustration.

In the last half-century, the American egg industry has been on a path toward further intensified confinement practices—until now. For the first time, major retailers are saying no to battery cage cruelty and egg producers are literally ripping out cages from their sheds. What does this mean for animals? In just the last 18 months of concerted campaigning against the battery cage, hundreds of thousands fewer laying hens are confined in cages.

The Campaign
Just as animal protection campaigns have successfully equated veal with animal cruelty in the minds of many, the campaign against battery cages is quickly enforcing the idea that no socially responsible business ought to associate itself with an abuse as abhorrent as battery cage egg production.

Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace have discontinued all sales of eggs from caged birds, and Trader Joe’s has done the same with its private brand eggs. Companies like AOL and Google now refuse to use battery cage eggs in their corporate employee dining halls, and food service provider Bon Appétit Management Company is phasing in a no battery egg policy for all of its 400 cafés, including those for major corporate clients Yahoo!, Adidas, Best Buy and Nordstrom. Also, nearly 100 U.S. colleges and universities have enacted policies to eliminate or dramatically reduce their consumption of battery eggs.

The trend is clear: battery cages are being relegated to the dustbin of history faster than anyone would have imagined just two years ago.

Pragmatic and Effective
The important question is, what replaces the battery eggs? Grocery chains and food service providers refusing to use battery eggs are still using eggs, even if they are from cage-free hens. Most cage-free hens come from hatcheries which kill male chicks and hens may endure debeaking. In many cage-free facilities, the hens cannot go outside and they are slaughtered at an early age in the same ways as nearly all commercially-raised laying hens. While cage-free may not mean cruelty-free, cage-free hens have significant advantages in quality of life than their caged counterparts. Unlike battery hens, cage-free hens are able to walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests. Further, cage-free egg producers who obtain certification under one of the more reputable standards programs must provide perching and dust-bathing areas for the birds as well. These advantages are important and significant to the animals involved.

This campaign is not pursuing an all-or-nothing, absolutist approach. Rather, it is a pragmatic campaign seeking to tangibly reduce animal suffering by ending one of the most abusive confinement practices in agribusiness today. This Henry Spira-style strategy pushes the peanut forward by freeing egg-laying hens from the confines of battery cages and improving their miserable lives.

We must be careful, however, in describing the campaign to the public to put forward a truthful message. Cage-free is a factual statement that describes the hens’ housing—simply that these birds are not confined in cages. It’s one thing to state that not using battery eggs helps reduce animal suffering and is a move in the right direction. It’s another to claim that cage-free eggs are by definition “cruelty-free.”

Looking Across the Atlantic: Meaningful Victories for Farm Animals
While a majority of the American public may believe that it’s acceptable to eat eggs, polls clearly demonstrate that the vast majority of the public does not believe it’s acceptable to confine birds in cages so small they can barely move. It’s time for us to translate existing public support for animals into meaningful movement victories, most notably by banning battery cages.

We have the power and the public support to affect change today. We should not be willing to abandon millions of animals to endure significantly worse cruelty than they have to, which is exactly what we do if we don’t support bans—corporate or legislative—on battery cage confinement that most people already oppose.

European animal activists are strides ahead of us when it comes to banning some of the cruelest factory farming practices. Countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland have already passed bans on battery cage egg production, and the entire European Union is phasing out the use of battery cages. There is no reason the U.S. can’t take those same important steps in the right direction—or even do better.

The factory farmed animals suffering today are counting on us to help them. Campaigning to eliminate battery cages at the corporate or governmental level is one effective way to do just that.

Paul Shapiro is the director of the Factory Farming Campaign of the Humane Society of the U.S. He is also the founder and former campaigns director of Compassion Over Killing. To learn more about the campaign visit www.hsus.org.

 


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